The humble ceiling is playing its part in projecting the brand profile of many contemporary  businesses. Whether it’s a global giant, dotcom start-up or new approach to fine dining, you only have to look up to see a sky of baffles, canopies, rafts, islands and clouds. Adrian JG Marsh reports.

A burst of colours and shapes, together with an earthy dose of industrial design, is taking the ceiling sector into a new and exciting era. Whether it’s on the high street or in a high-tech media village, creativity is opening up new opportunities.

If you want a slice of the growing market you need to adapt and change, according to Ann Fisher, category director interiors and drywall at SIG. She said: “The traditional tile and grid ceiling market remains strong but a new market’s been evolving where new players are coming in with either niche products or design solutions that play to new trends in interior design.”

Adrian Norman, head of design at Bluu, the specialist interior design and build contractor that’s now  part of property consultancy JLL, sees the choice of ceilings as really depending on who the target  market is for tenants: “There’s certainly a trend towards fully exposed or part exposed ceilings. We’ve just completed a fit-out at One Commercial Street in central London where the entire floor plate has exposed surfaces to make it a cool space that will attract mediaesque tenants.”

Dave Bonner, managing director at Nevill Long, agrees. “The increase in the use of exposed soffits, either through the construction of thermal mass structures or purely because of aesthetics, has seen significant growth in the installation of rafts, baffles, canopies, islands and other sorts of floating ceiling solutions.  But architects are continuing to  spec plain white clean aesthetics,” he commented.

There’s a whole new concept in office space, particularly in London, which is now being driven around young dynamic businesses needing a different environment to make sure their staff are comfortable at work.

Introducing hard surfaces  creates challenges for the  installation teams, as Mr Norman explained: “Rather just having a sea of desks the thing you see is ceilings and light and this creates interest for the occupiers. The big challenge is to deal with acoustics and we’ve used self-adhesive acoustic foam on the ceiling and also looked at horizontal baffling.”

The fit-out at Twitter’s stunning London Headquarters is the most ambitious project that Bluu has  delivered to date and the design and ethos of their new space challenges conventional attitudes towards the workplace. “Twitter’s office has a lot of exposed surfaces with extensive ceiling rafts. The theme was carried through into the meeting rooms where we’ve  essentially located rafts with hanging lights and exposed services above,” Mr Norman explained.

As tastes change manufacturers have had to respond and extend their ranges. Knauf AMF now offers mineral, metal, wood, soft fibre and grid; Rockfon has soft fibre, grid and acoustic render systems and has just introduced Blanka, its  whitest tile; and Armstrong has mineral, metal, soft fibre, wood, grid and aluminium extrusions.

Metal tiles still have a dominant position in ‘landmark’  commercial projects and they’re getting increasingly complicated.

Matt Mills at SAS International said: “Exposed ceilings have definitely increased in popularity within  commercial office space, no doubt aided by the likes of Google. Having listened to a number of developers more recently, however, there is some caution as to whether the ‘TMT-style’ office is a passing trend. They’re also questioning whether this style of space is suitable for all sectors’ needs and all brands. One of the major concerns is the cost of creating a high-quality exposed aesthetic, which can be far in excess of alternative ceiling options.

“There’s no doubt that metal ceilings remain the product of choice for commercial developments due to performance demands and we’re seeing this market holding up  strongly. Even within exposed soffit areas, metal systems offer  sympathetic aesthetics in areas requiring acoustic treatment.

“The choice of ceiling system must consider how the space is to be used and is far from just an  aesthetic preference. This is true of all markets, transport and retail  being great examples. At  Birmingham’s Grand Central  shopping complex above New Street Station we designed and installed over 7,000m² of bespoke metal ceilings specified for the lower retail area within the mall. This project represented a highly complex mix of acoustic and aesthetic demands. The aim was to create an ideal meeting place which would serve as a gateway to Birmingham. SAS acoustic panels also replaced plasterboard to manage reverberation times where acoustics were an issue. This was one of our biggest contracts outside of London and one we’re very proud of.”

In retail, designs are now much more varied and call for either bespoke designer ceilings or just plain old ‘plastic-faced plasterboard’, such as British Gypsum Satin Spa.

At the new John Lewis ‘Home Hub’ in Basingstoke, Sherwood Interiors has installed 215 bespoke ceiling fins. Darren Killeen from Sherwood said: “The design called for an open solution where the ceiling was more about aesthetics than acoustics.  The installation was critical as  everything is seen, and we had to strategically place purpose-made suspension components to  coordinate with the proposed lighting and signage scheme.”

The fins and suspension brackets for Sherwood were produced by aask us, the Bicester-based manufacturer of profiles and trims for ceilings and partitions. Anthony Chadley, managing director of aask us, said: “There’s been a trend over the last year where clients want to make a feature out of the ceilings. This demand led to our investment in the latest machinery where we can cut and fold metal to almost any shape.”

Mark Grocock at installation specialist Bespoke Drywall said: “While contemporary bespoke manufactured ceilings offer an excellent product with a range of solutions for certain environments, this is generally manufacturer  specific, time constrained with lead-in issues, and labour intensive.

“There will always be situations where the combination of design aesthetic, product performance and void maintenance demand a modular or bespoke metal ceiling or mineral rafts. The humble MF is still an intrinsic, cost effective method of bringing feature ceilings into the work or retail space.

“Using exactly the same  regularised framing components as those for flat ceilings but with skill, flair and innovation, all manner of features can be achieved,  particularly with the  implementation of the various  manufacturers’ feature and  performance enhanced boards.   Another advantage is that the  products are predominantly ex-stock and the installation can be cost effective compared with  manufactured solutions.”

What’s clear is that more  occupiers are opening up ceilings. SIG’s Ann Fisher sees that both office and retail plays in this space and said: “For installers, they’ll need to be confident with taking on a new and exotic ceiling. And for contractors with design flair, they’ll have the ability to bring buildability to contracts and help designers meet their aspirations.”

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